02 March 2014
Soulpepper’s latest ingénue is nominated this year in the Best Supporting Actress category for playing two drastically different roles (Estella and Biddy) in the company’s stellar adaptation of Great Expectations. She was lovely in that production- charming, complicated, frustrating, sympathetic- but it’s perhaps even more telling that she’s part of not one but Two other nominations this year (Best Ensemble for La Ronde and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), making her one of our most celebrated performers of 2013.
The range she showcased last year predicts great things ahead for the beautiful and daring Leah Doz. She joins our Nominee Interview Series to talk about her breakthrough year.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
I don’t remember the first production, but I remember seeing a clown show under a tent somewhere in Edmonton, my hometown. I got called on stage as a participant. I was probably four or five, and the clown had me put a small, spongy, red clown nose into the palm of my hand, squeeze it, then open my fist. I did that, and the clown nose was magically three times its previous size. No idea how that happened.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
I loved playing Sonja in La Ronde at Soulpepper.
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
I’d love to play Martha from Who’s Afraid. And Shaw’s Saint Joan. Violet in August: Osage. Still hoping for Juliet too….
How did you get involved with Soulpepper?
I did a Soulpepper General audition for Albert [Schultz, Artistic Director] in 2012, and it was one of the most relaxed, easy auditions I’ve ever done. And from that I got an audition for La Ronde, and then once we were in rehearsals for La Ronde, I auditioned for Great Expectations.
You were a part of not one but two of our nominees for Best Ensemble. Tell us about working with the companies of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and La Ronde.
I made dear friends on both shows.
Ted Dykstra, Jordan Pettle, and Kenneth Welsh really held up R&G with such giant roles. They worked unbelievably and exemplarily hard, and the show’s success belongs to them and director, Joe Ziegler.
For La Ronde, I trusted our director, Alan Dilworth, right from the start. He was adamant and passionate about exploring the play’s content and avoiding gratuitousness with the nudity, and he lead us in a process that was the most patient and specific investigation of a text that I have ever encountered, and I am a thousand times a more detail-oriented actor because of it. I wish every process could be that layered. The group was also so supportive of one another. We were all frightened of the content, but everyone took the plunge.
R&G: RIP seemed built to work in rep with a full Hamlet. Have you given much thought to what your Ophelia would look like in Shakespeare’s text as opposed to Stoppard’s?
Gregory Prest (who played Hamlet) and I wished desperately we could do the full thing. He was walking around backstage with the full text in hand, matching R&G’s action up with the full Hamlet, and I was deep-breathing preparing to enter screaming again…. All the Ophelia and Hamlet scenes in R&G are the scenes we don’t see in Hamlet, but only hear about through retelling. There is very little speaking if any, so most of the scenes felt more like an abrupt physical dance of very emotionally intense entrances and exits underscored by madrigals which gave them their comedic value, but also just make Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship seem even WEIRDER than the full length. So Gregory and I felt strange all the time. I think R&G shows the mysteriousness of Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship maybe more than the full play itself because we see how intense and awkward their physical interactions actually are sans text in brief snippets.
La Ronde (and especially Soulpepper’s La Ronde) is a really risqué piece. Did you have any reservations about the content or the nudity?
Yeah, everyone always says “Ooo, La Ronde, tres risqué”. They made a joke about it at the Dora’s, something about “that play with the hot naked chick”, and *sigh*… because I really didn’t want the play to be labeled as “the naked play”. Our intent was always to explore the real themes within the play: our human struggle to find connection and our relationships to sex, but it’s amazing, you take your clothes off and…. But even so, if it’s still easier for people to talk broadly about nudity, that doesn’t negate the experience they had with the play’s other risqué subject matter like sex trafficking, adultery, porn addiction. And so I still believe we succeeded.
So the nudity wasn’t the challenge for me. The only way I can describe it is that the artifice of knowing it was a play made me not actually feel naked? The theatre as a space feels inherently safe, and the job is to step into an imaginary world within that space that isn’t. The real challenge was playing a trafficked woman; I wanted my choices to be informed by research, and I would read stories of women who lived through an unfathomable nightmare and think “How can I possibly attempt to realistically portray her experience?” I’ll never have a cut and dry answer to that question. Actors are always appropriating experiences, and it can be controversial, but the exploration is necessary. I don’t usually “miss” characters, but I miss playing Sonja.
How did you master that tricky accent?
Funny story: A while ago, I saw the CN Tower Play at TPM. It had a lot of audience participation, and at one point we had to dance with a fellow audience member. A year later while rehearsing La Ronde, Soulpepper had a student from their youth program named Polly Pohkeev record the text in Russian so I could learn it. I hadn’t met her, I just knew her from the recording, and then she finally came to see the show, and she was the same girl I’d danced with a year ago….
I also met with one of the coordinators at the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church near Queen West and bought perogies and cabbage rolls in exchange for a pronunciation session.
You’re also nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Great Expectations. Were you familiar with the book before starting rehearsals?
I had never read Dickens until Great Expectations. I assumed the “old English writers” weren’t my cup of tea. I was so wrong. Dickens is a genius.
What are some of the challenges of playing two very different parts?
The challenge wasn’t in playing two roles so much as it was tracking both stories in less time and fewer scenes than the 500-page novel. Any stage adaptation is going to be considerably condensed from the original. Novels reveal so much about characters through their interaction with their physical environment, but our set had to understandably remain minimalistic since it needed to transform through the story’s large timeline. For instance, there’s this moment in the novel when Biddy is so frustrated by Pip’s obsession with Estella that she picks a leaf from a tree and grinds it so hard in her hand over the course of their conversation that Pip can smell the oil secreted from the leaf—she does this instead of telling Pip how she feels, and in this action we see how Biddy characteristically internalizes her frustration. But of course, this doesn’t translate to the stage, so I had to find ways of manifesting this physically and spatially, or fiddling with my costume, avoiding eye contact, little things like that. Then with Estella, I spent so long in rehearsal wondering why I felt so tense, and blaming myself as an actor, thinking “Leah, loosen up, relax, breathe”, and then I realized that this was just Estella’s physicality—a state of constant emotional suppression manifested as a physical rigidity. She is desperate to prevent anything moving in or out. So I just felt caged all the time. Once I figured out what was going on, it became easier to transform between characters, or at home when I wanted to just be… normal.
Was it important to you that Estella be seen as more than a heartless beauty?
Vital. One of my audition scenes was the last scene of the play when Estella and Pip meet for the first time in ten years and Estella confesses her feelings for him and repents for the way she mistreated him. I was so moved the first time I read it because here was a very real woman who had been in an abusive relationship, whose childhood was stolen from her, who was full to the brim with self-loathing, but who had the courage to say “I’ve been bent and broken, but I hope into a better shape” and apologizes for her behavior. Not everyone emerges from their suffering and has the courage to say, “I was wrong; I’m sorry.” So that’s not a heartless person, that’s someone who was misguided.
Miss Havisham conditions Estella to break hearts, but as I rehearsed the play, I realized this objective reinforced Estella’s much deeper fear of being loved and masked her feelings of unworthiness. It’s psychology 101 and it’s golden for an actor. And feeling unworthy is a heartbreaking and universal struggle. So it would have been a lazy misunderstanding to play her as a cruel bitch when she is really complex.
In what ways was that character shaped by her relationship to Miss Havisham?
Miss Havisham lives vicariously through Estella. Miss H was duped at the altar and she wants all men to pay, so she raises a beautiful young woman to do her bidding. But to keep the horse on the reigns, Miss Havisham makes Estella believe the only thing powerful and worthwhile is breaking someone’s heart, but the curse of this is that Estella pushes everyone away to the point where she inevitably ends up alone and unhappy. She hates herself so much for her actions that she considers herself unworthy of love and ends up in a physically abusive relationship with a man who reinforces this belief… a deeply tragic situation that leaves her as miserable as Miss Havisham. It’s a cycle of violence, and a formula that Miss Havisham only realizes in the eleventh hour, which is why she ends her life. So Dickens has this dark “inheritance of parental pain” thing going on that is fascinating. His version is extreme, but the psychology he develops is very astute and realistic.
Did you work much with the young actress playing the young versions of your characters?
We had a few discussions together about both Biddy and Estella. We also did things like eat ice-cream together. I love little Naomi Agard.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
The last scene of act one is when Joe Gargery and Pip (played brilliantly by Oliver Dennis and Jeff Lillico respectively) meet at Pip’s London flat, and we see Joe out of his comfort zone in a “gentleman’s world”, and Pip’s embarrassment about his past reflected in Joe’s awkwardness. The two sip coffee silently, have nothing to discuss, and in the silence realize how far they’ve drifted. Joe finally admits he doesn’t belong there and leaves. It’s heartbreaking and it was played to perfection.
Which directors and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?
In my fantasyland-mind-place where only fairies live my Queen of Hearts is Meryl Streep.
But in my real-life life there are so many mentors. Namely, a throwback to Greg Dowler-Coltman my high school drama teacher who runs the drama department at Victoria School of Performing and Visual Arts in Edmonton. And Scott Swan, who runs a private acting studio in Vancouver called Seacoast Studios where I trained for two years after high school before theatre school. They always took my ambition seriously, even when I was young.
Do you have any favorite people to work with?
Too many to name. The whole Soulpepper gang.
I’m also at the NAC right now and have played lovers twice with David Coomber. Couldn’t ask for a more like-minded, hard-working, diligent, and gentle scene partner.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
I’m a part of the English Theatre Ensemble at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until March. So far we’ve done Sound of Music and Tartuffe, and we’re rehearsing Enron right now.
Then I’m back in Toronto, will be working on a short film, and continuing some project development with Soulpepper.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I recently got twitter and my handle is @LeahDoz.
Thank-you so much for the nomination and support! I’m truly grateful to have worked with so many incredible people last year. It’s the truest cliché.